- The Washington Post identified at least six politically influential Russians who attended President Donald Trump’s inaugural celebrations last year.
- Lobbyists Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin attended the festivities, as did gun rights activist Maria Butina, who used to serve as an assistant to Russian banker Alexander Torshin.
- Veselnitskaya, Akhmetshin, and Torshin are all being scrutinised by investigators probing Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
The two Russian lobbyists who met with then-candidate Donald Trump’s top campaign officials at Trump Tower in June 2016 also attended the inaugural festivities when he was sworn in as president seven months later, The Washington Post reported.
One of the lobbyists, Natalia Veselnitskaya, is a Kremlin-connected lawyer who lobbies aggressively against the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which blacklisted powerful Russians suspected of human-rights abuses. The other lobbyist, Rinat Akhmetshin, is a former Soviet military intelligence officer and an ally of Veselnitskaya who also advocates against the Magnitsky Act.
Akhmetshin and Veselnitskaya met in June 2016 with Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
Both lobbyists attended a party on Inauguration Day last year at the Library of Congress that was sponsored by Russia-friendly Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s campaign committee, The Post reported.
Rohrabacher and Veselnitskaya also met in Moscow in April 2016 to discuss issues related to the Magnitsky Act, a law Russian President Vladimir Putin has derided as a “purely political, unfriendly act.”
Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin invited scrutiny last July, when news of the Trump Tower meeting first broke. Trump Jr. said in response to initial reports about the meeting that they discussed Russian adoptions and not campaign business. He was forced to amend his statement, however, when it emerged that he accepted the meeting after being offered kompromat on then Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
That meeting, its attendees, and the Trump campaign’s subsequent response have been a red-hot focus for special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional intelligence committees investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
In addition to Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin – both of whom are under FBI scrutiny – at least four other politically influential Russians attended Trump’s Inauguration Day celebrations last year, according to The Post.
Wealthy Russian pharmaceutical executive Alexey Repik and his wife were there, as was energy tycoon Viktor Vekselberg. Vekselberg is said to be closely aligned with Putin, with whom he frequently meets to discuss business. According to federal filings reviewed by The Post, two of Vekselberg’s American associates donated a combined $US1.25 million to Trump’s inaugural committee.
Also in attendance was Russian presidential candidate Boris Titov. Though Titov is running as a liberal-leaning competitor to Putin in the country’s 2018 presidential race, he is part of the Kremlin establishment and is friends with the Russian leader,according to The Moscow Times.
Avid gun rights activist Maria Butina was also there. The Daily Beast reported last year that Butina has referred to herself at various times as a Russian central bank staffer, a gun enthusiast, a graduate student (she studies at American University in Washington, D.C.), a journalist, “a representative of the Russian Federation,” and a link between the Trump campaign and Russia. She also served as an assistant to and intermediary for Putin-allied Russian banker and politician Alexander Torshin, who has been accused in the past of money laundering and other financial crimes.
Butina had a birthday party on November 12, 2016, four days after Trump was elected, at a cafe near American University, according to the report. The gathering featured several top Trump campaign advisers and National Rifle Association activist and Republican strategist Paul Erickson, who reportedly told attendees Butina was on the Trump transition team. Butina and Erickson have been acquainted since at least 2013, and Erickson has touted himself as being well-connected to the Kremlin.
Erickson invited scrutiny last year, when The New York Times reported that he emailed Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn in May 2016, with the subject line “Kremlin Connection,” telling him that he could arrange a backdoor meeting between Trump and Putin.
Russia is “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the US,” Erickson wrote, according to the email, which was described to The Times. He added that Russia would try to make contact with the Trump campaign at the NRA’s annual convention in Louisville, Kentucky.
Butina made a similar request through Rick Clay, a conservative Christian advocate. Dearborn forwarded Clay’s email to Jared Kushner, who rebuffed the offer, two officials who read the email said.
Torshin was the individual designated to make “first contact” with Trump from Russia’s side. Erickson described him in his email as “President Putin’s emissary on this front.”
Erickson wrote that Torshin would make “first contact” with the campaign at a dinner honouring wounded veterans that was organised by Clay, the report said. Neither Trump nor his campaign advisers attended the reception. Trump Jr. and Torshin did, however, attend a separate NRA dinner the same night.
Investigators are said to be reviewing the correspondence and any others related to Dearborn, Erickson, Clay, and Torshin. The FBI, in particular, appears to be homing in on Torshin’s role in leveraging the NRA to influence the US election.
McClatchy reported this week that the bureau is looking into whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the NRA to help sway the race in Trump’s favour. The NRA, according to the report, said it spent a record $US55 million on the election, most of which came from a sector of the organisation that isn’t required to disclose its donors.
The US’s former ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, told The Post it was “strange” that so many Putin-linked individuals attended Trump’s inauguration.
But Ned Price, a former CIA analyst who served as Senior Director of the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, said he wasn’t surprised.
“This team courted and potentially colluded with the Russians since day one without any apparent shame,” he said in an email. “I would have been surprised had prominent Russians NOT attended the inauguration. It was Moscow’s victory, after all.”
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